The narrative road traveled in Who Killed the Electric Car? is the tragic rise and rapid fall of the remarkable electric car (or EV), a cautionary lesson in how not to drive sanely when it comes to "the public good." But this rich and absorbing documentary also functions as mystery and exposé. It's also a weeper, as former owners of EVs profoundly miss the cars they were forced to return. Scenes of the roundups, the graveyard holding areas for the cars and their actual destruction only exacerbate the sorrow, as the filmmakers brilliantly anthropomorphize the little four-wheel wonders into innocent war victims.

And war it is. There they are again, the powers-that-be turning promising, progressive ideas and products into ineffectual reforms and remedies. As many of the film's talking heads suggest, "for the greater good" is too easily turned into "for my own good" or plain ole no good. The demise of the car, as depicted here, may be depressing, but with so many engaging witnesses, intriguing ideas and startlingly stupid acts, it becomes forceful entertainment.

The major setting is California, where anti-pollution legislation in the early '90s set the stage for the car at the center of the controversy-General Motors' GM EV1. The cute, efficient electric vehicle, introduced in 1996, won lots of fans, sold well (actually, the cars were leased), and performed nicely, but for reasons the film explores, GM, with Gestapo-like determination, rounded up the vehicles years later and destroyed them in the Arizona desert.

Filmmaker Chris Paine brings to his inquiry an impressive array of talking heads from all sides of the issue, including such electric car boosters as Mel Gibson, Tom Hanks, Martin Sheen, Ed Begley, Jr. and Phyllis Diller, who amazingly remembers the pre-1920s electric cars. Beyond celebrity sizzle are former EV1 owners who mourn their loss like bereaved family members. Other witnesses are the clumsy legislators who facilitated the recall of the cars, the tech people who support the integrity of the cars, the GM guys who pass the buck, the marketing double-talkers, and familiar activists like EV advocate Ralph Nader.

The documentary rounds up a number of suspects: the consumer population and the press, not always forward-thinking; the oil companies and car companies; and the hydrogen fuel cell, which became the new darling of the California Air Resources Board. Last but not the least suspect is the federal government, ever wobbly on the issue of fuel efficiency. The loudest engine roar heard in the film is that of human machines fueled by greed, self-interest and denial. With air pollution, oil prices and dependency what they are, the extermination of the EV comes across as another kind of crime against humanity.

Happily, Who Killed the Electric Car? suggests salvation by way of people like Iris and Stanford Ovshinsky, who wear multiple hats as researchers, inventors, entrepreneurs and technologists. Their ongoing successful work in the areas of energy efficiency, battery technology and so much else gives the film a jolt of hope.

-Doris Toumarkine